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To Be or Not to Be Vegetarian?

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vegetables on counter top

Becoming a vegetarian continues to grow in popularity. The benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing saturated fat commonly found in beef and other fatty meats are undeniable. However, it’s important to ensure you’re getting all the proper nutrients you need for good health and longevity.

Benefits to eating vegetarian
According to the position paper published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2016, individuals who follow an appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diet can benefit from reduced risk of certain health conditions, including:

  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Obesity 

Research also shows low intakes of saturated fat (fatty meats, whole milk dairy products like cheese, butter and cream) and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) can lower cholesterol, LDL and blood sugar levels. All of these are components of vegetarian and vegan diets so it’s a win-win!      

Where do you begin? 
The key is in planning and balance. Don’t assume just because a meal is labeled vegetarian, plant-based or meatless, that it’s healthier. You could be a vegetarian and still eat a poor diet that consists of french-fries, chips, a small amount of fruits and vegetables and inadequate protein. If you are looking into following a vegetarian plan, first you need to consider what type is right for you. All plans include vegetables and fruits, but there are specific allowances and restrictions in regard to animal products and bi-products.  

  • Semi-Vegetarian: occasional meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs
  • Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: dairy and eggs allowed; excludes meat, fish and poultry
  • Lacto-Vegetarian: dairy allowed; excludes eggs, meat, fish and poultry
  • Ovo-Vegetarian: eggs allowed; excludes dairy
  • Pescatarian: fish, dairy and eggs allowed; excludes meat and poultry
  • Vegan: excludes all animal products and byproducts (dairy, eggs, meat, fish, poultry and honey)

Adapt slow and steady
When determining your plan, start slowly. Heed the African proverb that states, “No fool tests the depths of the water with both feet.” Therefore, it would not be wise to jump into a situation without giving it some thought. It may be better to adapt to a vegetarian eating pattern gradually. Think of it as evolutionary verses revolutionary change.

  • Start with substitutions. Consider going Semi-Vegetarian first by introducing two vegetarian meals per week. Take a favorite chili recipe, cut the meat portion in half, add an extra can of beans and diced red pepper. Continue to decrease the meat, add tofu and more beans until you have a flavorful, meatless dish.
  • Gradually try different versions of vegetarian diets until you feel comfortable with the one you choose.

The more restrictive the diet, the more challenging it is to meet your nutritional needs and the harder to stick with…but it can be done.

Key nutrients to include:


According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarian, including vegan, diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes when caloric intakes are adequate. However, it is important to point out it requires careful planning to make sure you are reaching your protein goals.

If you choose an Lacto-Ovo plan, which includes dairy and eggs, it is easier to reach your protein goal.

If you adopt a vegan eating plan, focus on including quality protein sources such as:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Seeds
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Soy milk
  • Edamame
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains such as oats
  • 100 percent whole wheat bread
  • Quinoa

Regardless of the vegetarian plan you choose, spread out your protein intake through your day. Meals should contain approximately 20-30 grams protein per meal depending on your weight, age and activity.

Iron aids in the formation of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. Vegetables contain non-heme iron that is not absorbed as well as heme iron found in animal-based foods such as meat and eggs. Good plant sources of iron include:

  • Beans
  • Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Enriched bread and cereals
  • Whole grains
  • Dried fruit

Plants are a good source of vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of iron. Consume iron and vitamin C at the same meals. Good sources of vitamin C include:

  • Red bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Cabbage

Tip: use iron cookware such as cast iron to help increase iron absorption.

Milk and other dairy products are excellent sources of calcium. If you don’t consume dairy foods, look for calcium-fortified tofu, soy milks and juice. Other food sources of calcium include:

  • Cooked collards
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Bok choy
  • Legumes
  • Dried fruits
  • Almonds
  • Chia seeds
  • Sesame seeds

Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is known to be the vitamin from animal sources. If you are a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian, you typically can meet your requirement through milk and eggs. If not, non-animal sources of B12 include fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast such as Brewer’s yeast, fortified cereals and some meatless patties. To be on the safe side, if you don’t consume dairy or fortified products, it would be best to take a B12 supplement.

Resources for a vegetarian/vegan eating plan

  • Meet with a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist who can give you credible information and help you plan nutritionally-adequate vegetarian and vegan meals.
  • Are you meeting your goals? Track your food on the free MyFitnessPal app to ensure you are getting enough protein, fiber and calcium.   
  • Visit the Vegetarian Resource Group website,

To schedule a one-on-one consultation or learn more about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Patty Kirk, RDN, LD, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Department